‘How did World War I affect Santa Barbara?’— Jon Landes
By: Michael Redmon
Although the First World War did have an impact on Santa Barbara, it did not have as large an effect as World War II had on the community. The war broke out in August 1914, but the U.S. did not enter the conflict until spring 1917. Europe seemed very far away from California and there was not as much apprehension about a direct attack — a contrast to the fear in the months following Pearl Harbor. Still, Santa Barbarans certainly did not ignore the War to End All Wars.
The German invasion of Belgium at the beginning of the war and subsequent atrocities against civilians caught local attention. In November 1914, author Stewart Edward White, one of the most popular novelists of the period, threw open his upper Eastside home for a benefit food drive for Belgian civilians. This and other efforts raised some $1,400 for the food fund and drew praise from the Belgian National Society of Relief. Another campaign urged folks to spend $1.50 to buy a 50-pound bag of flour, which would then be shipped overseas.
In 1916, an incident occurred that in some ways mirrored the events surrounding the attack on the Ellwood oil fields by a Japanese submarine in February 1942. In early February, both the police and the local newspapers received reports about a flotilla of strange ships accompanied by airplanes off the Channel Islands. This was a time when aviation was still a relatively new phenomenon, so this caused much comment, and the fact that it was wartime gave the entire episode a bit of a sinister cast. Local authorities contacted the Navy, which stated it had no craft in the Santa Barbara area. Both the Allies and the Central Powers also denied having any forces in the channel.
The nightly sightings continued for two weeks, and the community’s apprehension grew. When a wall of a dilapidated adobe on State Street collapsed, rumors flew that German bombers were responsible. Finally, the Navy confessed it indeed had been conducting secret maneuvers in the channel. The excitement died down, but the incident was an indication of growing public concern about the war.
That concern of course deepened once the U.S. entered the conflict. A local educator, Prynce Hopkins, had recently opened a school based on Montessori teaching principles, naming it Boyland. Hopkins was a confirmed pacifist, which got him in trouble with authorities. Although no evidence of pro-German sympathies could be found, Hopkins was find $25,000 and the days of Boyland were numbered. Numerous conservation campaigns called for the populace to observe “meatless” and “wheatless” days. Stewart Edward White and Joel R. Fithian organized a Santa Barbara contingent to the volunteer California Field Artillery, popularly known as the “Grizzlies.” The unit served overseas but did not see combat.
Another group of concerned citizens organized the Santa Barbara Constabulary to ensure public order. Volunteers pledged to put up the funds to equip each of the volunteers with a new Springfield rifle. Drill exercises took place in the gym of Santa Barbara High School, which ruined the wood floor. When a recruit expressed dismay about this, he was told by an officer, “This is war, and war is waste!” The drilling continued. Eventually, the constabulary numbered more than 500 men.
The end of the war in November 1918 resulted in great joy and celebration as the bells of the Old Mission announced the wonderful news. As a coda to the conflict, the deadly influenza epidemic hit the city that same month, packing the city’s two hospitals to overflowing and causing the shutdown of public gathering places, such as theaters and pool halls. It was a melancholy finale to Santa Barbara’s contribution to victory.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.